Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 4, No. 545. Sunday, 12 Sept. 1993.
Date: Saturday, 11 Sep 1993 12:07:54 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: Politics again
I sympathize with James McKenna's sense that "that seething politics is an
inadequate explanation for Shakespeare's intensity." I'm sure we've all
read pedestrian applications of political ideas to Shakespeare and other
writers. On the other hand, keep in mind the fundamental American
feminist position, that the personal is political, and perhaps "seething
politics" become seething personal trauma. Consider a young woman in
1595, at the height of "illegitimate" births in England, who is convinced to
do the deed of kind because her beau has promised her marriage. She is
assuming what Katherine Salter asserts in 1564, "that after a couple have
talked of matrimony it is lawful for them to have carnal copulation"
(quoted by Susan Dwyer Amussen, *An Ordered Society*, p. 110). Salter
in her turn is expressing the popular vision of marriage by spousals that is
ultimately derived from canon law. As the canon lawyer, Henry
Swinburne, says in his *Treatise of Spousals* (published in 1686, but
probably written around 1600), such promises followed by consummation
represent "the Substance, and indissoluble Knot of Matrimony" (p. 14).
What neither Salter nor my imaginary woman of 1595 recognizes is that
canon law and parliamentary law are in conflict precisely on the question
that Swinburne states. So when my imaginary woman, now pregnant,
takes her case to her local JP, she does so because she is caught in the
political crossfire of two competing sources of authority. Furthermore,
when the JP laughs her out of court because she is common and her rapist
(as I think he can legitimately be called) is gentle, and the "community"
agrees that the preservation of property supersedes whatever spousal rights
she may have under contested canon law--then she encounters another
aspect of the politics of early modern England.
I really do not see that the "seething politics" in cases such as this are
Sorry for the length.